At the start of her residency in Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern Parisian suburb, Chicago-based visual artist and activist Tonica Lewis Johnson heard a familiar sound: Luther Vandross’s 1980 song “Glow of Love,” a “total barbecue song black Chicago,” as she described it. Johnson was even more surprised to learn that young people have a connection to another American music genre that’s even closer to home: Chicago musicians like Lil Durk, Chief Keef and G Herbo.
The affinity soon made sense to Johnson, as she reflected in an interview, “They can relate to anything a Chicago musician says because it’s so similar to their experiences here: They’re isolated from the inner city … They really have very challenging, uncertain relationship with the police.’
These unexpected moments of connection define Johnson’s work through ongoing projects such as “The Folded Map,” in which she brought together neighbors at parallel addresses on Chicago’s north and south sides. Most recently, she placed signs in her hometown of Englewood on homes noting Land Sale Contracts (LSCs). This racist practice deprived would-be home buyers of mortgages by requiring monthly payments with no title tied up. (According to a Duke University study, 75–95% of houses sold to black families in the 1950s and 1960s were through LCS, a “legally sanctioned robbery of black wealth,” estimated at between 3, 2 and 4 billion dollars.)
While Johnson’s projects are deeply rooted in the Windy City, she recently traveled across the Atlantic to explore the black experience in France through a residency at the Ateliers Médicis cultural center in Clichy-sous-Bois. This commune, with a majority of Franco-African citizens, is cut off from major roads and has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country.
“It all stems from residential segregation and how that shapes your personal relationships, where you live and your social network: that’s the line that I identified and the line that I wanted to really explore more deeply,” Johnson said. She added: “We think that understanding geography is just a way of knowing history. But no, it’s extremely important to get to know people today.”
In fact, the similarities between Clichy and Chicago’s South Side led Ateliers Médicis — which promotes the arts in the local area — to create Clichy Chicago in 2021. Clichy Chicago, which is centered around the theme of “Afflicted Communities, Chosen Communities,” aims to “create a ‘third a place where the voices and ideas of those who live, do and think about working-class neighborhoods and suburbs’.
In France, Johnson expanded his Belonging project, which began in Chicago in 2018, photographing teenagers of color in places where they feel they don’t belong. Focusing on this population was especially important to Johnson, who first became aware of how segregated Chicago was while commuting from the South Side to her high school on the North Side. With “Belonging,” she wanted to amplify the voices of those the city neglected, despite the fact that black and brown people make up the majority of its residents. She said: “The questions you have about your environment at that age really shape the way you think about where you live.”
Johnson, who has a French godmother, had previously had lengthy discussions with locals about race in the country. She said making Belonging an international endeavor is a way to develop a transatlantic conversation about race: “We’re both a demographic of people who are from countries that are rich, that have a deep history of slavery and colonization. And it’s a kind of connection to a country that no one else can understand.”
However, Johnson could never have predicted the situation in Clichy and other French suburbs will become global front-page news after a police shooting that sadly echoes those that have occurred in the United States and around the world. In June, Nachel M., a 17-year-old of Algerian descent from the western Paris suburb of Nanterre, was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Weeks of protests followed, with many recalling a similar response in 2005 after the deaths of two other young men of color who evaded law enforcement. Their deaths occurred in Clichy-sous-Bois, where the Atelier Medici is located.
In true fashion, Johnson used maps to explain the situation to his social media followers. It is surprising to many Americans to learn that French public housing is concentrated in the suburbs known as suburbs. Paris’ 20 arrondissements form a spiral with a freeway separating the city from the suburbs, many of which are under-resourced and home to predominantly working-class and immigrant communities. Nachel’s death has renewed attention to racism in France, particularly the use of force by police officers.
While this adds weight to Johnson’s project, she believes that working in the abstract space of art, as opposed to explicit journalism, “makes it easier to have these very open, transparent, vulnerable conversations because I can use contacts that we share personal relationships with ‘, which created an ‘automatic level of trust’. She also left room for the conversation to meander for hours and used follow-ups to go deeper as the subjects felt more comfortable. She went to events they organized and even a football game: “You really just have enough curiosity and compassion to want to get to know people. And people like to be listened to when they feel heard.”
Like her subjects in Chicago Belonging, those in France highlighted their personal experiences with discrimination. But one of the most significant differences she found was the lack of recognition of racism in mainstream French society – despite its large population of people of sub-Saharan and North African descent, France keeps no statistics on race, which many argue leads to division to preserve French identity. This means that there are few studies proving the existence of racism, whether in housing, school, workplace or other spheres. Many pundits, especially on the right, believe so too Walkism, the French variant of the American term “woke,” seeped into French universities and other institutions through concepts such as critical race theory.
One of the people Johnson photographed was Carlton Sadie, a 29-year-old photographer and cameraman. Sadie describes France as an abusive parent who does not fully accept them as French. Within his group of friends, they call it the “6/9 effect,” in which two people see a situation upside down, the opposite way: “We clearly see that it’s a six. They want to tell us it’s a nine.
Johnson recalls telling her that “they’re all French. Because we don’t have that language [to talk about racism]it’s very easy for them — considering the establishment, the state — to make us feel like we’re crazy.”
Colette (who chose not to give her last name), a 32-year-old florist whose mother is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told Johnson she felt lied to and robbed of her culture “because there’s no conversation, there’s no way she’s ever learned about the country her mother is from and how she is related to France. European colonialism in Africa “contributed to the reason her mother wanted to come to France to have a better life.”
Here Johnson drew a contrast with his experience in the US, where “it cannot be denied that we were here with white people at the same time. So no one will deny the fact that we are Americans. But it doesn’t matter to the black French whether they were born there or not. People will still question their identity like “Oh, where are you from?”
Johnson said this partly stems from the reality that slavery happened in the US while it was confined to the French colonies, making it “very easy to erase that history, not even teach it or not even acknowledge it. So I can understand the conflict and frustration that black French people feel.
Another of Johnson’s interview subjects added further nuance to the conversation – Knight is an American photographer who chose to live in France. He experienced a different city “as James Baldwin used to say about Paris.” The famous writer is part of a long line of African-Americans who found a more welcoming community in the City of Light. This most notably includes Josephine Baker, the World War II performer and member of the Resistance who was recently inducted into the Pantheon (the first black woman to receive this high honor).
These artists shaped French culture through jazz, literature and other media, a trend that continues today with the influence of rap and street style. But when he spoke with black French people, Johnson was particularly moved by their commitment to their African roots. They “discuss the value of culture and its preservation because it is what connects you to a place. And when you’re connected to a place, you always feel like it’s somewhere you can go back to, somewhere you invest, somewhere you can work, some paid place you can live. And all these things contribute to economic development. ”
Johnson is now going through his hours of interviews and photos taken in locations that matter to the sources, such as the Châtelet metro station, where many commuter lines pass. Her work will be part of “Regards du Grand Paris”. This 10-year (2016–2026) project between Ateliers Médicis, Center National des Arts Plastiques and the French Ministry of Culture aims to create a rich set of images depicting the reality of life in Paris. Johnson hopes to help demystify Paris and its fantastical image that can hinder the work of those fighting for social justice.
“Beyond the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, La Seine, the streets full of boutiques, galleries and cafes, Paris is a delusion! The laid-back culture of Paris was/is built on the stolen wealth and resources of the MANY African countries colonized by it!” she wrote in an afterthought. “Those who care to pay attention can easily see that successfully erasing Paris’s brutal colonial history from public consciousness is the chef’s kiss of racism, capitalism and master manipulation.”